Why do astronomers hate freedom?

Caelan MacTavish

Was I the only one floored by Friday’s illogical attack on astronomy?

The Oregonian’s editorial about the status of Pluto as a dwarf planet is either a joke, or evidence of danger and destruction in the public discourse.

I sorely hope it is the former.

First, I find it arrogant that the Oregonian editors would presume to know what is best for celestial bodies, rather than an international consortium of astronomers. Auto technicians do not berate them for their choices of column width, because expertise, generally, is left to the experts.

This editorial is polemic better suited to propaganda than to educated discourse. What is with the harping about redemption and the Taliban? (Hello, Reinhard!) “Pluto’s crime seems to be that it exists”? What are they talking about? There is no crime being discussed, or judgment being passed.

The reclassification of the term "planet" (by those they term “effete, inbred” astronomers—nothing like brazen insults to get your point across) seems to make them believe that this has somehow downgraded Pluto, making it less than it once was.

They are evidently unaware that any definition of planet that included Pluto would have added anywhere from 3 to 50 celestial bodies to the planetary canon. It is obvious that Jupiter, Mars, and even our own Earth belong to a different class than 2003UB313, a Scattered Disk Object which angles 44 degrees beyond the ecliptic. Kuiper Belt Objects are markedly different than the eight planets in the ecliptic disk of the Sun, and deserve to be categorized differently. Any rational distinction puts Pluto on the other team. Sorry if it makes you sad, but science is callous that way.

The editors prove themselves ignorant when they decry the “death penalty for Pluto,” despite the fact that it is alive and well—or, at least, materially unchanged since yesterday. The change of classification from “planet” to “dwarf planet” hardly constitutes planetary demise.

Further, they prove themselves both blind and careless when on the front page, they caption a photo of Pluto and its three satellites as “show(ing) two moons around Pluto.” There are, in fact, four celestial bodies in the photo: Plato, Charon (nearly superimposed, but still evident), Hydra, and Nix.

Charon’s status, as a dwarf planet or as a satellite, is still ambiguous according to the current definition, especially since the barycenter of the Pluto-Charon orbit is outside of the surfaces of both planets. This may qualify the duo as a “double-dwarf-planet system,” and this uniqueness alone will ensure that they will not be forgotten among deep space debris.

This interesting convolution could have been used to further the debate. But the editorial did not even use the term "dwarf planet," leading the reader to believe that Pluto had been cast out into the nether reaches for good.

By their own admission, the editorial board “take(s) issue with their decision, not on their chosen grounds of technical merit, but on grounds of accepted procedure.” What accepted procedure do they refer to for celestial classification? This has never been done before (at least, not without the Catholic Church threatening heresy for a wrong answer) and I feel professional astronomers are those best suited to do it.

If the Big O editorial board is upset that they were not consulted, their inflammatory ignorance is proof that they are eminently unqualified to contribute to the discussion.

The presence of such blathering is an embarrassment to Portland’s biggest newspaper. I long for an educated, considered presence in our editorial pages, but so long as the proud ignorance of this kind is tolerated—nay, trumpeted—then I fear that the intellectual discourse of which Portland is capable will be continually discarded in favor of angry, illogical opinions.

If this was, in fact, a joke, then it was light on the humor and heavy on the vitriol. Had it been at least factually correct, maybe I would have gotten the joke. But living with a media dominated by conservative polemicists, I have trouble finding angry ignorance to be funny.

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    Them thar links could use some love.

  • TKrueg (unverified)


    I had the exact same reaction about the editorial... I kept thinking that the language was so obsurd it must be a joke, but they skipped over the "The Onion"-type spoof commentary and proceeded to lay out a poor case for their objection. It was the embodiment of GOP-like arguments for the sake of, well, nothing.

    What does it say about our country when more people are 'outraged' by Pluto's demotion than issues that really matter?

    Pluto= This week's Jon Benet saga

  • Qwendolyn (unverified)

    I canceled my Oregonian subscription last month.

  • jami (unverified)

    it is a joke, mocking republican-style fact-haters pretty well, i think.

    perhaps it takes an effete scientist egghead, all too accustomed to seeing such attacks, to know a good mockery of them when she sees one.

  • jami (unverified)

    what's messy about the editorial in my mind is that the educated-elite-haters (in real life: republicans) are begging for peace. as if.

  • Steve (unverified)

    I think the editorial was supposed to be parody, but as usual the Oregonian has its head up Uranus.

  • PleaseSavePluto.Org (unverified)

    As a layperson, I feel it in my gut that Pluto should be a planet. Just because we do not want to add more celestial bodies does not mean we have to demote the existing ones. Hypothetically speaking, what happens if a number of bigger planets than earth are discovered? Will earth lose its status of a planet? Even experts like Physics Professor Bill Blass and NASA's Dr Alan Stern disagree with IAU's decision. As a concerned citizen, I have started a petition against this decision at http://pleasesavepluto.org and we need like-minded individuals' support.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)

    "A cooling-off period is called for, even if that's the last thing Pluto needs"

    "In fact, they brought less gravity to their caucus than Pluto. Pluto, after all, has three moons."

    "Presidents and ambassadors seek peaceful agreements before they start talking about aiming nuclear missiles at each other's capitals."

    "Let's send our best diplomats to astronaut school and dispatch them to meet their counterparts in space. Let us seek understanding, not punishment."

    Do you really think this is serious? If they had only used your headline it would have been clearer - and a lot funnier. Why do astronomers hate freedom?

  • Gil Johnson (unverified)

    Tell you the truth, I don't care if Pluto is a planet, an asteroid or something in between. The real question concerning Pluto comes from Disney, as expressed so elegantly in the movie "Stand By Me":

    Okay, so Pluto is a dog, but what's Goofy?

  • Isaac Laquedem (unverified)

    I was hoping that the Union would adopt the earlier definition of a planet, the one that would let in Charon, Ceres, Xena, and a host of KBOs to be named later. This was the definition of a planet as something smushed round by gravity that orbited the Sun. The reasoning for letting in Charon was that the center of gravity of Charon and Pluto lies between them and not within Pluto.

    The ringer that the eminent astronomers perhaps forgot (or perhaps remembered in time to change the definition) is that the center of gravity of the Sun and Jupiter lies outside the Sun, meaning that by the same reasoning, Jupiter does not orbit the Sun and is therefore not a planet. I was eagerly anticipating the embarrassed faces when they discovered that they had let in Xena and kicked out Jupiter.

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    Much of the public commentary (including the O's) seems to imply that Pluto gives a shit. That it might even be offended.

    Is it just me, or is it unlikely that a ball of ice some millions of miles from gives a damn?

  • Silence Dogood (unverified)

    There is no such thing as a "free" Pluto.

  • Pluto (unverified)

    Alright folks, I am a freakin' planet, it's not like I have no feelings. Why doesn't anyone just ask me what I feel? I am saddened yet relieved by this decision. I've been a planet for a long time. I didn't feel I was up to it when I got the designation; and feel like I have been living in a telescope every since. And that ain't easy, folks. For the first time in all these years, I feel like I can let loose and play and not worried about all of your snot nosed kids always treating me like they give a shit because their incompetent teachers tell them to. Besides, if they didn't name that stupid dog after me, nobody would even know who the hell I was. You people!

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    Dammit! Coffee all over the computer screen!

  • Kimberly Bebout (unverified)

    The "Boregonian" never disappoints!

  • Matt Picio (unverified)

    On another board I am a member of, someone pointed out that until some interpretations of the term "cleared", Earth and Jupiter are not planets by this definition. They haven't "cleared" their orbits. (Jupiter has the Trojan and Greek asteroids in its orbit, and Earth has the Apollo asteroids in its orbit)

    More than anything, I think this illustrates the folly of trying to classify objects for which we have such a small sampling.

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